Was Einstein Learning Disabled?

By Meg Heron-Blake

Albert Einstein is frequently included in lists of historical figures thought to have learning disabilities. Yet, Marlin Thomas, in a past issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities, contends the supposition that Einstein had a learning disability may be more based in the desire to include someone of Einstein’s stature in with a group around which there is a lot of misperception. Thomas presents evidence that Einstein’s purported delayed speech, problems reading, school challenges and difficulty with employment may be unsubstantiated upon closer examination. Einstein’s sister once wrote of the concern their parents had about his late development of speech. However, Einstein himself negates this when he wrote that between the ages two and three, he practiced sentences subvocally before saying them aloud. In addition, his grandparents wrote that at age two Einstein had “droll ideas.” Thomas posits that Einstein did not have difficulty reading, citing the remembrance of Einstein’s tutor that at age thirteen he understood the writing of philosopher Immanuel Kant. In addition, writings done between the ages of 12 to 16 show a writer who was able to relate abstract concepts in clear and sophisticated language. Academically, Thomas writes, “Einstein’s available grade reports also present a picture of, at worst, a moderately successful student.”

While Einstein admitted difficulty with memorization and related that one teacher said he “would never be able to do anything that would make any sense in this life”, there is also much to suggest he was an accomplished student. Finally, Thomas explores Einstein’s unsteady employment early in his career, but finds that there are many possible reasons, and a lack of persistence of job problems.

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It is difficult to diagnose a person posthumously. Certainly, others who have explored the evidence have reached different conclusions than Thomas. Whether or not Einstein would meet a stringent definition for learning disabilities as we now define it, his own writings indicate that he experienced some academic challenges. About test taking, he wrote, “I would feel under such strain that I felt, rather than going to take a test, that instead, I was walking to the guillotine.” In addition, he related that teachers thought he asked too many questions and that he found learning difficult. Hence, amidst all of Einstein’s other great accomplishments, a piece his legacy can continue to be motivating other bright students who face learning challenges, regardless of classification.

Thomas, Marlin. (2000). Albert Einstein: An evaluation of the evidence. Journal of Learning Disabilities,33, 2, 149-157.